September 18

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Final page of Robert Bell’s subscription notice for Blackstone’s Commentaries that may (or may not) have been distributed with the September 17, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette.

“Peaceable, yet active Patriotism.”

Yesterday, the Adverts 250 Project featured Robert Bell’s subscription notice for Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England that Accessible Archives included with the September 17, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette and addressed the difficulty of determining whether the subscription notice originally accompanied the newspaper.  Today, the marketing strategies deployed by Bell merit consideration.

First, however, consider the format of the subscription notice, a four-page flier.  On the first page, addressed “TO THE AMERICAN WORLD,” Bell encouraged prospective customers throughout the colonies to purchase American editions rather than imported books.  It could also have been published separately as a handbill, similar to the second page featuring two advertisements for books “Lately Published” by Bell, “YORICK’S Sentimental Journal Through FRANCE and ITALY” by Laurence Stern and “HISTORY OF BELISARIUS, THE HEROIC AND HUMANE ROMAN GENERAL” by Jean-François Marmontel.  On the third and fourth pages, Bell promoted William Robertson’s “HISTORY of CHARLES the FIFTH, EMPEROR of GERMANY,” a work he widely advertised in newspapers throughout the colonies, and other American editions.  The flier concluded with a note defending “the legality of literary publications in America.”

Both before and after the American Revolution, Bell established a reputation as one of the most vocal proponents of creating a distinctly American literary market served by printers and publishers in the colonies and, later, the new nation.  Bell advanced both political, economic, and cultural arguments in favor of an American book trade during the imperial crisis.  He opened his address “TO THE AMERICAN WORLD” by proclaiming that “THE inhabitants of this continent have now an easy, and advantageous opportunity of effectually establishing literary manufactures … the establishment of which will absolutely and eventually produce mental improvement, and commercial expansion.”  In addition, purchasing books published in America would result in “saving thousands of pounds” by consumers as well as keep the money on that side of the Atlantic.  Colonists could pay lower prices and, in the process, what they did spend would be “distributed among manufacturers and traders, whose residence upon the continent of course causeth the money to circulate from neighbour to neighbour, and by this circulation in America there is a great probability of its revolving to the very hands from which it originally migrated.”  Supporting domestic manufactures, including American publications, would create stronger local economies, Bell argued.

“American Gentlemen or Ladies” had a patriotic duty to lend their “auspicious patronage” to such projects by informing their local bookseller or printer that they wished to become “intentional purchasers of any of the literary works now in contemplation to be reprinted by subscription in America.”  In so doing, they would “render an essential service to the community, by encouraging native manufactures.  In turn, they “deserve[d] … grateful remembrance—By their country—By posterity.”  These subscribers would also contribute to the enlightenment of the entire community, the “MAN of the WOODS” as well as the “MAN of the COURT.”  In the hyperbolic prose he so often used in his marketing materials, Bell declared that “Americans, do certainly know, if universal encouragement is afforded, to a few publications of literary excellence … they will assuredly create sublime sensations, and effectually expand the human mind towards this most rational, and most dignified of all temporal enjoyments.”  In addition, he described himself and other American printers and publishers as engaging in “peaceable, yet active Patriotism” in making inexpensive American editions of several “literary WORKS” available to consumers.

Bell frequently inserted advertisements with similar messages into newspapers from New England to South Carolina, but those were not his only means of encouraging “THE AMERICAN WORLD” to support domestic manufactures and the creation of an American literary market that would result in self-improvement among readers far and wide.  In subscription notices (which may have been distributed with newspapers on occasion), book catalogs, and broadsides, he advanced the same arguments much more extensively than space in newspapers allowed.

January 9

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (January 7, 1771).

“ADDRESS To those who possess a PUBLIC SPIRIT.”

When bookseller Robert Bell inserted a notice about upcoming auctions in the January 3, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal, he devoted the second half of the advertisement to promoting an American edition of William Robertson’s multivolume History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V.  He addressed the “real friends to the progress of Literary entertainment, and to the extension of useful Manufactures in a young country.”  Bell advanced a “Buy American” marketing strategy during the period of the imperial crisis that ultimately culminated in the American Revolution.

Later that week, he continued his advertising campaign with another notice in the January 7 edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.  Bell included some of the copy from the earlier advertisement in this much lengthier iteration.  Both versions highlighted the phrase “THE LAND WE LIVE IN” by printing it in all capitals and centering it on a line of its own within the advertisement, drawing attention to Bell’s proposition that consumers who purchased this work also contributed to the “elevation and enriching” of the colonies.  He enhanced that argument with a headline that described the entire advertisement as an “ADDRESS To those who possess a PUBLIC SPIRIT.”  Potential customers, Bell asserted, had an opportunity to engage in acts of consumption that possessed political significance.

At the same time, the bookseller declared that the American edition was a bargain compared to imported alternatives.  He charged “the moderate price of One Dollar each Volume” for the three volumes, noting that the “British edition cannot be imported for less than Twelve Dollars.”  Colonists could acquire the work at a significant savings, a reward for their role in creating a distinctive American marketplace for the production and consumption of books.  Only the first volume had gone to press, so the advertisement also served as a subscription notice.  Bell encouraged “Gentlemen who have rationality enough to consider they will receive an equivalent” to an imported edition to sign on as subscribers, simultaneously flattering and cajoling prospective customers.

Bell informed the “Encouragers of printing this Grand Historical Work” that they “may depend upon ebullitions of gratitude,” but that was only an ancillary reason for purchasing Robertson’s biography of Charles the Fifth.  He presented their own edification and their responsibility for promoting domestic manufactures in the colonies as the primary reasons for buying the first volume and subscribing for the subsequent second and third volumes.

January 3

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

New-York Journal (January 3, 1770).

“The promotion of which vivifieth individuals, and tendeth towards the elevation and enriching of THE LAND WE LIVE IN.”

Robert Bell was one of the most innovative, industrious, and influential booksellers in eighteenth-century America, known for the larger-than-life personality he cultivated and the entertainment he provided at auctions.  Bell’s auctions were events, public spectacles that amused those in attendance.  The bookseller was also known for his work in creating and promoting a distinctly American market for books, especially after the revolution.  He got started on that enterprise, however, several years before the colonies declared independence from Britain.

In the first issue of the New-York Journal published in 1771, Bell launched a new advertising campaign that announced book auctions on Friday and Saturday evenings.  In addition to giving information about the auctions, he devoted half of the advertisement to a nota bene about the “American Edition of Robertson’s Charles the Fifth.”  Rather than purchase imported alternatives, Bell asserted that the “real friends to the progress of Literary entertainment, and to the extension of useful Manufactures in a young country” would acquire the edition produced in the colonies.  Over the course of his career, Bell became known for the verbose and convoluted prose he deployed in his marketing materials.  He used labyrinthine language even by eighteenth-century standards, including in this advertisement for an American edition.  Consumers were already familiar with arguments in favor of domestic manufactures in the wake of boycotting imported goods, but Bell approached the endeavor with more verve than proponents when he trumped that “the promotion” of American products “vivifieth individuals, and tendeth towards the elevation and enriching of THE LAND WE LIVE IN.”  The bookseller advocated on behalf of American commerce and American culture simultaneously, arguing that consumers could enhance both through the decisions they made when buying books.

Bell did not merely present customers with options for reading “Divinity, History, Novels, and Entertainment.”  Instead, he challenged them to think about how their participation in the marketplace could aid the American cause and contribute to the formation of a distinctly American identity.  He intensified those arguments as his career continued, building on marketing strategies from the early 1770s.